A big rig lumbering at daybreak out of a San Bernardino truck yard with a million-dollar load of cigarettes is swarmed by at least three armed bandits. They jump on the running boards, smash the windows and douse the driver's face with pepper spray.
Within seconds, they handcuff the driver and his passenger, then rumble down the road. The victims are later found unharmed, and that night California Highway Patrol officers, after a stakeout, arrest eight people unloading the cargo at an El Monte warehouse.
Investigators, however, are still searching for the actual hijackers.
The recent case was just a partial victory for law enforcement officers in their otherwise losing war against such heists in Southern California, which is the nation's capital for cargo theft.
It could be cigarettes, diapers, Christmas trees, frozen shrimp, computer chips, sex toys or manure. All of them and more have been snatched.
"Southern California is like a candy store to cargo thieves," said Jim Harris of the 20-year-old Western States Cargo Theft Assn., a Cypress-based organization of security specialists.
All told, bandits in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties rip off about $2 million worth of assorted goods each day, authorities estimate. Harris calculates that consumers in the region pay as much as 20% more at retail to make up the losses.
In terms of dollar losses and reported cargo thefts, 2001 probably set a record, said FBI Supervising Agent Brett S. Millar. In Southern California, "cargo theft losses are already the highest in the country, with an estimated value of $600 million per year."
The region has always been a breeding ground for such hijackers because of the massive amounts of cargo moving through it around the clock. The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex--the nation's busiest--each year handles more than 5 million shipping containers, with cargo valued in excess of $170 billion. Los Angeles International Airport ships 78% of the Western states' air cargo.
Law enforcement authorities attribute the surge in thefts partly to the sheer increase in freight movement in recent years. And they say criminals have discovered that cargo heists generally carry lesser penalties than drug dealing, with no start-up costs.
Veteran Los Angeles Police Department cargo theft investigator Mark Zavala said the hottest merchandise on the black market right now includes laptop computers and computer chips, as well as baby formula, frozen seafood, toilet paper, clothing, dog food and cigarettes, all of which can be easily sold at small retail outlets locally, in Mexico and overseas.
Disposable diapers are also popular, given that they do not have serial numbers and sell quickly in low-income communities.
"I haven't seen this many reports of cargo theft in years," Zavala said. "On Nov. 28, I recovered a load of stolen toys worth $100,000, and a trailer taken in a San Joaquin case valued at $100,000. The next day, I located a truck abandoned after a heist in Montebello. When I got back to my office I found a new report on my desk saying $500,000 worth of computer modems had been taken from El Monte."
On the morning of Nov. 30, Zavala stood on a sidewalk in the shadow of a Harbor Freeway overpass in South-Central Los Angeles interrogating William Avery, 54, a truck driver from Hawthorne.
Looking bedraggled and jittery beside his orange-and-red big rig, Avery said: "I was sleeping in the cab about 3 a.m. when I heard someone knocking on the door. It was a girl. She was kind of cute too. She asked if she could come in."
Wincing at the memory, Avery said, "There was a guy right behind her with a gun."
Avery said they forced him to drive a circuitous route, then emptied his trailer of 50 Christmas trees.
Avery then drove his truck back to the side street where the hijacking occurred and called police. The case is under investigation.
Even with the daunting statistics of theft, many drivers, warehouse operations and freight shipping companies say they cannot afford the best security systems available. Instead, they often rely on a few hired guards, chain-link fences and padlocks to safeguard millions of dollars in merchandise. Even so, law enforcement experts suggest that 60% to 80% of all cargo theft incidents are "inside jobs" in which a freight hauler or company employee shares information with thieves.
Federal law requires that all interstate carriers have cargo insurance. But few firms can survive more than two or three large cargo theft losses because their insurance carriers often refuse to renew, said Ron Lord, senior theft investigator for Great West Casualty Co. in Knoxville, Tenn.
Pacer International Inc., a shipping company, saw two of its truck yards attacked by armed robbers in November, said the firm's director of security, Norm Black.